Black Knights: Choose Your Battles

by Alicia McKenzie



DISCLAIMER: They're mine. All of them. But their parents belong to Marvel....;) This is the beginning of one sequence of the Pantheon series, Black Knights.



". . .good, old-fashioned traffic jam this morning, so if you're heading downtown, you'd better take that into account," the anchorwoman said pleasantly, smiling out from the bedside vidscreen. "On the bright side, we've got a gorgeous day on the way. . ."

Clare Summers groaned. "Off," she muttered, poking her head out from beneath the covers and glared at the anchorwoman's chipper face. The image froze for a moment, and then vanished. Clare pulled the covers back over her head.

It was too early.

She sensed him approaching before she heard his footsteps in the hall outside the door, and ignored him resolutely, even when he came in and sat on the edge of the bed. "Morning, sunshine," he said wryly. She stayed silent. "Are you ignoring me? I get the impression you're ignoring me."

"Go flonq yourself," she groaned. Flonqing morning people.

"Now, is that anyway to treat someone bearing gifts?"

A familiar aroma managed to pierce the heavy layers of covers, and she threw them back, sitting up with alacrity. "Bastard," she growled, snatching the cup of coffee from his hand and glaring at him.

"You know," Ian Voght said wryly, running a hand through his red hair to smoothe it, "I still sometimes ask myself what possessed me to fall in love with a woman who's so unspeakably foul-tempered in the morning." He looked a little disheveled, as if he'd just gotten up himself. A little groggy, even, but his blue eyes sparkled with growing amusement.

"You're a masochist," Clare said haughtily, and downed half the cup of coffee in one gulp.

"And you are a caffeine addict. What is it, genetic?"

"Hah. I'm laughing. . .you see me laughing, right?" Clare pretended to glare at him as she sipped the rest of the coffee more slowly. Inwardly, she was reflecting on just how good he really did look in the morning. It really wasn't fair. Her hair probably looked like a haystack. "How long have you been up?"

"Only a while," he said cheerfully. "You didn't hear the door?"

Her eyes narrowed. "The door."

"Yeah, Harry finally dragged himself in." Ian grinned ruefully. "I didn't ask where he's been, and I don't think I want to know. He's occupying the couch at the moment. Snoring rather loudly, as a matter of fact. I'm surprised you can't hear him."

Clare frowned. Reaching out telepathically, she located Harry's mind, and swore under her breath in Askani at what she found. "That idiot. Did he say where he's been?" she demanded, setting the cup on the night-table and sliding out of bed.

Ian sighed. "Come on, Clare, don't get on his case."

"Don't get on his case?" she tossed back over her shoulder, angrily. "I'm supposed to keep letting him go out and. . .do whatever it is he does to get himself in this kind of shape, night after night? Especially now? I don't particularly want a groggy, hungover Brit watching my back on Saturday night, Ian."

"He's having a hard time," Ian persisted. "You should understand that better than anyone else. . .

"Of course I understand! I was in Denver too, remember?" Clare snapped irritably, shivering. It had been sunny that morning, too.

The flowers. She remembered the flowers. The smell of them, the delicate fragrance that even now, even after all this time, she could still smell whenever she woke up from nightmares of that day. "You don't see me turning into a drunken sot, do you?" she demanded, and then bit her lip. Not fair, she wasn't being fair. . .

"Clare. . ."

"We need him for the merge, Ian. Meggan Braddock's not an option, and Dana would flay the lot of us if she had any clue what we were doing. He's the only empath we can trust." She paused in front of the mirror, disoriented suddenly. For a moment there was someone else staring back at her, an old woman with silver hair and a vaguely familiar face. She closed her eyes tightly for a moment, and then opened them again.

The reflection was normal. Just her, now, although she didn't like the lost look she saw in her own eyes. "Damn," she said softly.

"Clare?" Ian asked gently, coming up behind her and laying his hands on her shoulders. "What's the matter?"

"Nothing," she muttered, rubbing her eyes. Still having those 'phantoms', even a year after that day in Denver. At least that one had been relatively mild. Not at all like the hallucinations she'd had those first few weeks. Her father kept telling her that it was probably a prescient ability, triggered by the shock of the psi-wave and struggling to emerge. Such a joy, having all this latent potential.

"You're right," she said very quietly. "I shouldn't be so hard on Harry. I forget he didn't have the training Zara and Nick and I got. The attack was harder on him anyway. He's too sensitive an empath. . ." She smiled wanly. "I do worry about Harry, you know. As much as I want to kick his ass, sometimes, I do love the stubborn bastard."

Ian leaned over, dropping a kiss on her shoulder. "Should I be jealous?" he asked. Trying to jolly her into a better mood.

"Like a brother, you ass. Anything else would be vaguely incestuous." She and Harry and Zara and Nick had all grown up together, after Harry's parents had gotten married and moved to the States. "Besides, chain-smoking empathic pyrokinetics aren't my type."

"Such a relief."

"You are far too chipper in the morning," she grumbled, shaking her head at him and heading for the shower. "What time is Raph's plane coming in?"

"Just after noon. I told her someone would be there to pick her up."

"She'd probably just shrug, grab her luggage and walk here, if we didn't," Clare said wryly. Raphaela was a female version of her father. . .even more taciturn, if that was possible. She wondered briefly, amusedly, what the rules-obsessed leader of the X.S.E. would think about his daughter taking part in this most unauthorized of unauthorized 'missions'. Funny thing to think that 'Uncle Bishop' had once been pragmatic enough that he probably would have come along for the ride. Now he's buried in red tape. . .sort of like Dad. The thought sobered her.

She couldn't worry about what Bishop. . .what ANYONE would think. She'd put the team together for very specific reasons, and they needed Raph, every bit as much as they needed Harry. An anti-psi in the post-Merge world, where telepaths and empaths were as common as dandelions. . .

She just wished she didn't feel like she was using them all. Zara had accused her of having a conscience attack the other day, with that sly smile that always made Clare want to break her 'cousin's' jaw and see how well that beta-level healing factor of hers worked. . .

. . .but she had to be fair. They wouldn't have gotten this far without Zara. She was the only telepath in their group with the strength to shield herself from a merge's probe who could have made a believable Unity convert.

Clare grimaced. She was stronger than Zara, but she could never have carried on the charade. Not after Denver. She couldn't have been there, lived among them, the insane men and women who had murdered an entire city. Not without acting on the dangerous level of fury that still boiled inside her, down deep beneath every shield her father and Sulven had ever taught her.

No, she wouldn't have been able to play Zara's part in this. Nick didn't have the same acting skill as his twin. Zara had been the only option, and without the intelligence she'd gotten them, they wouldn't even have a target.

It would just be nice if she wasn't quite so SMUG about it.

Ian prudently left her alone to shower and get dressed. Their psi-link was a tiny little thread, as of yet, but he was astoundingly capable of interpreting it, especially for a non-psi. He knew when she needed the space, and she reached out along the link, from the blue-silver half that was hers past the incandescent point of contact to the greeny-gold that was him, in a gentle psychic caress.

#I'll be down in five.#

Take your time, he sent back, his 'voice' faint but audible. I'll see if I can shove some breakfast down Harry's throat. . .

Clare stiffened in the shower, memories coming back in a flood. Harry, lying on a biobed, shivering convulsively, eyes open, staring into empty air. Not eating, not talking, totally lost in his own mind. Trapped inside the city's death-scream, an empathic loop of pure anguish and fear.

His mind would have been completely destroyed, she reminded herself calmly, if she hadn't pulled him inside her shields at the last moment. She'd done all she could for him, that day. . .hell, she'd nearly killed herself doing it. She might have Askani-level shields, but spreading it over the two of them had thinned them to a dangerous point. The psionic shock had burned her mind right down to the subconscious level, but she'd recovered. Healed, at least to a point. . .

Harry didn't want to be healed. Once he'd come out of his catatonia, he'd closed himself off completely. Gone totally beserk, once, when Dana had tried to reach him.

Sometimes, just sometimes, he was his old self. . .but more often, he was jittery and anxious and self-deprecating, bouncing from one self-destructive episode to another as if he was trying to sample every method available.

No one knew what to do for him. Getting out of the shower, she tucked a towel around herself and headed back out into the bedroom, freezing again at the mirror. No visions, this time. Just her. She reached up, running her fingers through her hair. She'd cut it, after Denver, and kept it short.

Why had she done that? Feeling a little lightheaded, she walked over and pulled clothes out of the door. Dark clothes. Simple clothes. Once upon a time, her father had laughed warmly and told her that she had her mother's fashion sense.

Once upon a time she had dressed. . .differently. Colors. Styles that leaned towards the wild, sometimes. Not that she'd ever been particularly fussy, but she'd liked to draw attention, every once in a while.

She'd liked the grin Ian got whenever she wore something that flattered her.

Now, she didn't care. Couldn't BRING herself to care. Not about anything so simple, so unimportant. Clare knelt down beside the bed, fingering the simple black turtleneck and cardigan.

What did she care about, anymore? Ian was there, like a rock in her life. More than she deserved, yet there was part of her that he couldn't touch, now, not even through the psi-link. She rode herd on Harry. Fought with Zara. Went to classes. Visited her parents frequently. Did her X.S.E. duty quietly and thoroughly.

But the only thing that reached down into that place, that cold, stony, locked-away place, was the mission she'd been planning for the last six months. The utterly illegal, absurdly dangerous mission. . .

The way she'd finally devised to strike back at the Unity, right at the head of the snake. She would be lead in the merge - that had never been in question, never; it was her plan, her responsibility - and she was ready to use the merge to kill. Anyone who got in their way, actually, but one in particular.

Him. The emerald-green mind that tasted like acid. The monster who'd led the Unity's merge that day, who'd killed Denver.

One might say she'd been saving her first kill for a special occasion.

Clare closed her eyes. She could imagine his mind splintering under the attack she would lead. She'd drive all the terror and pain that haunted Harry into the bastard's mind like a knife. She'd rip his shields to shreds with Zara's cheerful savagery, and crush any attempt to resist with every bit of Nick's calm, thorough competence.

And then she'd throw control to the wind and pour her own power into his mind until it turned into a cinder. No good being the Phoenix's 'granddaughter' if you couldn't cut loose every so often.

Especially when it was worth it. Like now.

Clare laughed softly, hollowly. She didn't have it any more 'together' than Harry did. She just put on a better face.

She wondered, briefly, what her father would think.


Take out a cigarette. Hold it steady. Don't drop it. Harry Wisdom repeated the words to himself like a mantra, trying to ignore the way his hands were shaking. The way Ian was watching him as he made breakfast, those blue eyes calm and measuring. Always so quiet, Ian. Almost taciturn.

Harry laughed, a little wildly. Just like Clare. What did the two of them talk about, anyway? Neither was much on conversation. Maybe they bored each other. No, that wasn't likely, was it? Not likely at all. Not when you saw the way they looked at each other, when you bloody well felt the trust and the love and the passion that you could never touch, because you couldn't feel anything good of your own anymore. . .

"Fuck," Harry muttered to himself, shivering as he produced a brief flame at the tip of his finger and lit the cigarette. So cold. Why was he always so cold? Didn't make sense for a pyrokinetic to be cold.

Worry, from Ian. Something from Clare, upstairs - it had felt like irritation, before, but now it was something different. She was shielding, but he caught flickers of it. Hot. Angry.

He shouldn't like it. Clare's temper was a bad thing. Clare's powers out of control was a worse thing. But at least he felt it, felt the heat of it. A little flicker of flame in the cold. Just a little. Like the glow from the end of his cigarette.

#I thought I asked you not to smoke in the house.# Blued-silver, in his mind. Blued-steel. Silk and steel. That was Clare's voice. . .

"A guy's got to have his vices, Summers," he said, his voice raspy. "Otherwise he's boring." He looked up at her as she reached the bottom of the stairs, forcing a brittle smile to his face. "You're looking gothic this morning, love."

She blinked at him, gray eyes expressionless. His smile twisted, turning bitter. All in black, again. Did she know what she looked like? Like a bloody ghost. Always in black. Black clothes, black hair, pale face, those empty gray eyes.

Did she know? How she came across to anyone with a fucking ounce of sensitivity? They worried about her just as much as they did about him, but he didn't think she knew that. He bet that shell would crack if he told her that Ian had gone to her parents in despair, begged Uncle Nate to tell him what to do, how to help her. . .

He could tell her. His hands started to shake worse. That would break the shell, make her angry. Make her real again, and then maybe it wouldn't be so cold in here. . .

But he couldn't do that. He couldn't hurt Clare. She'd saved his life. She was the closest thing he had to a sister.

She'd been his first crush, given him his first kiss. Oh, she was with Ian now, and he knew they belonged together, but still. . .He loved Clare. He wanted her to be happy. He wanted to see her smile like she used to, see her and Ian raise lots of disgustingly powerful little rugrats.

He wanted to feel warm again. But it was so cold in here.

She sat down on the couch next to him, and he flinched. "You've got him well-trained," he said harshly, jerking his head towards Ian. "Making breakfast and all. . ." He laughed shakily. "I can't cook, you know. I burn water. Mum says it must be genetic. . ."

Her hand closed over his wrist, and he shivered. #I should have told Ian to let you sleep.#

"Don't need to sleep," Harry muttered wildly. He hadn't intended to sleep, when he'd staggered in here. Hadn't WANTED to sleep. Sleep was a Bad Thing, a Very Bad Thing. He dreamed, always dreamed, always the same thing, always Denver. . .he brought the cigarette to his lips, trying to gain himself a moment to concentrate.

Slow down the heartbeat. Breathe normally. Don't feel. . .

Screams, inside his mind. Death all around him, inside him, until he could see it and smell it and hear it and taste it, until he was choking on it. . .

The cigarette dropping from his hands but slowing in its fall, stopping, as Clare caught it telekinetically. "Breathe, Harry," she said gently, rubbing his back. Calm flowed out from her, something soothing and gentle like what he'd felt from his mother the night before last, when he'd crashed at home. He'd woken up crying, shaking from the same nightmare, and she'd been there, sitting on the edge of his bed, her brown eyes sad and worried as she told him that it was all right, that it was just a dream. . .

She'd flinched, when he wouldn't let her touch him. Hurt. So worried about him. Just like Dad. Only Dad was all twisted up about it, feeling helpless, feeling like he should have done something to protect him. . .

Guilt. He hated guilt. Made him feel sick to his stomach. Guilt from his parents, guilt from Clare's parents. . .damn it, even guilt from Bishop for sending them there on assignment in the first place. Bishop kept trying to convince him to come back to the X.S.E., trying to tell him that work would 'take his mind off' everything. . .

He forced himself to straighten, and plucked his cigarette out of midair. Calm. Push it all away. "I shouldn't have gone home."

"Harry. . ."

"I sounded things out at the mansion like you wanted - don't think anyone's got a clue what we're up to, so no need to worry on that score - and I really don't know how I ended up in the car with my parents. . ." He laughed, flatly. "I think Mum wanted me to stay a few days longer."

"Harry." That was Ian, still over in the kitchen, methodically flipping the pancakes over. "Are you sure you're up for this?"

The question made him stiffen. "You're not leaving me out of this, Voght," he rasped. "That's for fucking sure. . ." He looked back at Clare, searching for any sign that she was thinking the same thing. If they weren't going to let him help, if he didn't get to be in on taking down the bastard who'd led the attack on Denver. . .the thought filled him with something close to desperation. He HAD to be in on this, he had to be there. . .

"Don't worry," Clare said in a neutral voice. "As long as you say you can do your bit, I wouldn't think of it." For a minute, those gray eyes boring into his weren't quite so empty. "I know you need to do this, too," she said, more quietly.

A strange sigh came from Ian, in the kitchen. Clare started to look over her shoulder at him, frowning, but a knock came at the door before she could say anything. She blinked, and then narrowed her eyes. The door unlocked itself and swung open.

"Harry, I could sense you projecting out on the street," Nick Logan said calmly, walking in and leaning his psimitar case up against the wall beside the door. "Bad night?" He turned to face them, expression matter-of-fact as always.

"Bugger off, Nicholas. . ." Harry said without any heat. Nick wasn't actually bad to be around, all things considered. Always in control of his emotions. . .between that, and how bloody tall he was, no one who didn't know him well would've pegged him as Logan and Sulven's son. Twin sister or not, Zara only came up to the middle of his chest. They had the same black hair and blue eyes, but that was it.

"Hey, Nick," Ian said from the kitchen. "Want some breakfast? Blueberry pancakes. . ."

"That's okay. Mom sat there and watched me clean off my plate before she let me leave this morning. . ." Nick suddenly smiled, wryly, as he sat down in the chair opposite the couch. "She told me that whatever I was so preoccupied with wasn't enough of an excuse not to eat properly."

Clare raised an eyebrow. A year ago, Harry reflected humorlessly, she would have chewed her lip in that little mannerism that always gave it away when she was worried about something. Now, she didn't let things like that slip. "She doesn't. . .suspect, does she?"

"Oath, no," Nick said fervently. "At least I hope not."

Harry could sympathize with that. His 'Aunt' Sulven wasn't someone you wanted to piss off. The 'family' still told stories about what she'd done to Victor Creed fifteen years ago when he'd decided it would be a fun afternoon's diversion to kidnap the twins.

"Realistically, I think they all suspect, a least a little," Ian said dryly, coming over with two plates. He handed one to Clare, who smiled faintly and took it, and then scowled as Harry shook his head. "Eat or I force-feed you. I'm not kidding. . .you need to get something in your stomach."

"Listen, you. . ."

"He's right, Harry," Nick said, and the concern in his eyes made Harry seriously consider throwing something at him. "You look worse than you did the last time I saw you, and that's saying a lot."

"Oh, shut up, both of you," Harry said irritably, taking the plate and ignoring the way Ian's eyes narrowed as he saw how his hands were shaking. "Pair of mother hens. . ."

"Harry," Clare said quietly.



Blasted authoritarian-minded little. . .he squelched the thought before it slipped out. Of course she didn't want them squabbling, not before the mission. They all had to play nice, or the merge wouldn't work, and wouldn't that be a shame if it didn't. . .definitely a shame, a crying shame, because then the ones who'd killed Denver wouldn't die like they were supposed to die. He wouldn't feel them die, lights going out inside his head again, silent screaming. . .

Cut the pancake. Pick up the piece with the fork. Insert in mouth. Don't drop it. Eat. . .do what you had to, but don't think.

Don't feel.


Ian materialized in the bathroom stall, not even a thought in his mind to wonder if Clare had been right about it being empty. They didn't live all that far from the airport, and her telepathy was strong enough to pick up a stray thought in orbit. He trusted her when she said this stall was empty, safe for him to teleport into.

Trusted her. The electromagnetic mist that was Ian Voght shivered and then thickened, recorporating into the form he'd been born with, before his mutant ability had kicked in at puberty. Once he had lungs again, he sighed, looking around at the cramped confines of the stall with a mixture of humor and bleak irony.

He honestly hoped this wasn't a metaphor for where this damned mission was heading. He waited until he heard no one at the sinks and then came out of the stall, walking briskly out of the men's washroom.

The airport was crowded, and he frowned, irritated at the stream of people that seemed to be quite determinedly headed in the direction opposite the one he needed to go. Personal space had always been something of an issue with him. . .he'd lived his first six years in Antarctica, at his father's citadel, and there'd been endless corridors to roam there, even the growing population of the sanctuary not nearly enough to fill the place up.

He supposed the same wouldn't be true now. Lots of mutants had opted for the New Lands in the last twenty years. Some had been ordinary people, seeing opportunity or simply mistrusting the new climate of tolerance in the 'established' nations. A large portion of the population had been former militants, given the choice during the Amnesty, Amazingly enough, they seemed to have integrated well. There'd been a few outbreaks of violence in the early years - Ian could dimly remember one or two particularly nerve-wracking incidents - but nothing for a long time, now. The last time he'd spoken to his mother, she'd talked excitedly about how well the hydroponics farms were doing and urged him to come home for a 'break', as she'd put it.

Part of him wanted to, very badly. But he couldn't leave Clare, not under these conditions. God only knew what she'd find to 'occupy' herself if he didn't keep an eye on her.

It's a family trait, Clare's father had said dryly, during their 'conversation' a few weeks ago. They'd been in Nathan's office in the new UN building. Ian had stood at the windows, staring out at the spires of New York so that he wouldn't have to see his own frustration reflected in the eyes of a man who'd devoted his whole life to doing the impossible and succeeded, only to find himself in the position, twenty years later, of being unable to help his own daughter. The. . .focus, to balance the hurt. It's a coping strategy. Not a particularly healthy one, mind you. . .

Nathan Summers would. . .lose it, whole-heartedly, if he knew what Clare had planned. Ian had been tempted to tell him, figuring he could lie to Clare and say that her father had simply seen through him. I should have, he thought resignedly. Not like I have any psionic ability at all, and this IS the Askani'son we're talking about, here.

But he couldn't. He couldn't betray her trust, and there was that part of him that thought she was doing the right thing here. That this carefully planned surgical strike was the best way to do what needed to be done, since none of the 'official' agencies had been able to take action against the people who'd killed a city. . .

And he'd seen her nightmares. There wasn't any forgiveness in his heart for the people in that compound. Not anything even remotely resembling forgiveness. . .


Ian looked up, smiling slightly as he saw Raphaela waving to him from farther ahead in the crowd. He made his way to her painstakingly, trying not to step on anyone's feet, and chuckled as she gave him that tranquil smile and a careful hug. The youngest of all of them, Raph was still a few weeks away from her eighteenth birthday, but her poise usually let her be mistaken for someone years older.

"You cut your hair," he noted, with some surprise. It was so short it almost looked military.

"Thought it was more practical," Raph said mildly, and dropped the subject as if it was of no importance. Her dark eyes were thoughtful as she looked around. "Car? Or the other way?"

"The other way," Ian said dryly, taking her by the arm and shepherding her through the crowd. "If I can find a quiet corner, I mean. . ."

Raph smiled, a little more widely this time. The difference was slight, barely noticeable if you weren't used to her. "I like the other way," she said.

Ian couldn't help but laugh. Most people were not big fans of his method of teleportation. "You're the only one who does. Harry still complains that it makes him sick. . ."

Raph looked up at him, a sober look on her delicate dark face. "How is Harry?"

"About the same," Ian said with a sigh. Raph had been finishing up the last session of her X.S.E.internship, these last couple of months. It wasn't as if she'd been precisely out of contact, but none of the rest of them had seen her for a while.

"Ah," she said, almost sadly. "I was hoping that he'd feel better, the closer we got to doing this." Her gaze was a little more measuring, suddenly. "I bet Clare does."

"I wish I could tell," Ian muttered, and spotted a dark-glassed vidphone booth that would do for a quiet corner. "All right, kiddo, hold on to your lunch," he said with an attempt at a smile that he knew, just from the wise look she gave him, didn't fool her for a second.


#You're not concentrating. . .#

#This better?#

#Much,# Nick Logan said respectfully, once he'd deflected Clare's lightning-fast attack. He backed off a bit, contemplating her blue-silver astral self thoughtfully, studying her shields.

Her astral form glowed a little more brightly. #Do I need to let you poke a few more holes in them to demonstrate that they're all right?# she asked acidly. #My father checked them out last month. You remember my father. . .your teacher?#

#I wasn't suggesting anything, Clare,# he replied patiently. #Just. . .#

#Testing, I know. And I know I wanted you to back me up on this,# she said, a little less heatedly.

#Which involves. . .#

#Checking to make sure that I'm watching my own back,# Clare sent back sardonically. #I know the saying, Nicholas, thanks anyway. . .#

He let a ripple of his amusement flow out to her, and she parried the dark-gold tendril neatly. #Ouch,# he joked.

#Aw, did poor Nicky-Wicky get his wrist slapped?#

Nick laughed inwardly and dove at her, before she could react. One couldn't precisely tackle another telepath on the astral plane. More often than not, you ended up passing through them - unless they bounced you off their shields, of course - and that was exactly what happened now.

He had EXPECTED to bounce off. She'd had her shields up, just a moment ago. . .

Their astral forms touched, melded for a moment, dark gold and blue-silver pouring through one another in a single overwhelming moment of contact.


#. . .oh, flonq it all. . .#


Tangled memories. Hers and his. Laughter as a sheepish Ian recorporated after accidentally shorting out every appliance in the kitchen. Sneaking out of the mansion and skipping stones on the lake at night, with Zara. The scolding they'd gotten at Clare's thirteenth birthday party for the impromptu game of Pin-the-tail-on-Harry. . .


He flinched away from that one. He'd been on one of the emergency X.S.E. teams scrambled when the psi-wave had hit. One of the teams that had tried to deal, in those first few hours, with the few thousand mindless - and very agitated - survivors. . .

The aftermath had been horrific enough. He couldn't even begin to imagine what Clare and Harry had experienced, there in the middle of it, in the heart of the storm. . .

#. . .don't go there, Nick, just don't. . .#

#I'm trying, Clare, let go. . .#

#. . .you're the one holding on to me, you idiot!#

#And what do you two think you're doing?# A third voice, a cool, reddish-amber presence said in amusement, reaching out and unwinding them from each other carefully. #Remember what they say about astral sex, Clare. . .#

#ZARA!# Nick sputtered indignantly.

#. . .they never respect you in the morning.#

A sudden impact jolted him off the astral plane, and he swore, sitting up and rubbing the sore spot on the back of his head with a wince. "Ouch!" Damn it, why am I always falling on my head. . .you'd think I could land on my ass, JUST once, for variety's sake!

Clare was still levitating, blissfully unaware of his rather graceless exit from the meditative state. Harry sat on the couch, halfway through the pack of cigarettes and watching him in interest.

"You know, you're going to do damage one of these days if you don't stop doing that," Harry said helpfully. "Healing factor or no healing factor, fall on your head often enough and you soften your brains. . ."

Nick gave him a baleful look, and then gazed around at the room. #Zar?# he called questioningly.

#Right here, bro. . .# There was a flash of light beside Harry, who yelped, nearly jumping out of his skin as Zara appeared on the couch. She gave him a sweet smile and stole his cigarette. "Hey, Harry. What's shaking?"

#Besides him, not much,# Nick said a little harshly, reaching out telepathically to soothe Harry, who scuttled sideways to the very opposite end of the couch, white as a sheet, breathing raggedly and glaring at Zara with eyes that actually seemed dilated. #You didn't need to do that.#

His twin blinked at him, and then her expression softened as she looked sideways at Harry. "Sorry, sweetie," she said gently, sliding closer to him and laying a hand on his arm. She offered him his cigarette back with an apologetic smile.

Harry continued to glare. "It's got all your germs on it, now," he said petulantly.

"Well then, have another." She levitated the pack to him, and he snatched it out of the air, still glaring. Zara sighed, and glanced over at Clare, who was only now righting herself and standing up. "Who died?" she asked with a raised eyebrow for Clare's clothes.

"No one yet," Clare grumbled, glaring at her.

"Oooh. Idle threats. What a lovely way to start the morning," Zara said with one of those huge, insincere smiles that was seemingly designed specifically to piss people off.

"Right. A great way to start the morning. Almost as good as showing off and scaring the shit out of one of your teammates," Clare said, her smile tight-lipped, not quite there.

"Well, I see someone took her bitch pill this morning," Zara said blithely.

"Fuck this, I need some fresh air," Harry said agitatedly, getting up. "I can't sit here and fucking well listen to the two of you snipe at each other. . ."

"Okay, cut it out, all three of you," Nick said in his best impression of his father's firmest tone. "Harry, sit down." Harry sat, huddling in on himself like he was freezing, or something. "Zara, Clare. . ."

He didn't need to say anything more than that. The three of them had been in near-continuous telepathic contact since they'd been toddlers. They knew each other as well as they knew themselves.



"That's better."

#Shut up, Nick.#


He threw up his hands, got up off the floor, and headed for the kitchen. Maybe there were some blueberry pancakes left.


"So," Clare said, into the silence. "Any questions?" Not a word, from anywhere around the room. She smiled faintly. "No complaints, even? Color me astounded. . ."

"It's a good plan," Raphaela said from where she was sitting cross-legged at Nick's feet. "I don't see much to complain about."

"You having all these years of experience," Harry grumbled. Raph tilted her head as she looked over at him, and he flinched. "I'm sorry, Raph, I don't mean to be such a bastard. . ."

"It's okay," she said with a calm smile. "You can't help it."

Harry's eyes widened slightly, and he started to laugh. And couldn't seem to stop.

"Harry, quit it," Nick said. "You're going to start hyperventilating. . ."

"Can't. . .help it. . ."

"Harry. . ." Zara said with a sigh, rolling her eyes.

He finally took a deep, gasping breath, and managed to choke off any further laughter. "Okay," he said, wheezing. "I'm a bastard. And I don't have a problem with being the anchor for the merge outside the compound, believe me. Rather not have to be right in there when. . ." The glitter of hilarity faded from his eyes, and he fumbled for another cigarette.

"That was the point," Clare said, softly. "Keeping you out of the middle of it." She looked around, focusing especially on Zara and Nick, the other two telepaths in the room. "If this works, a lot of them are going to die. No one has a problem with that, right?"

It was a stupid question to be asking, this late in the game, but something told her it was very important to make sure. One last check, to reassure herself that she wasn't dragging anyone into this who didn't want to be there. Salve for her conscience?

"A problem with killing Unity lunatics?" Zara asked, the cool smoulder in her eyes directed elsewhere, Clare knew, which was a refreshing change. "Not hardly. I've been the one living with them for the last six weeks, remember?"

"I wouldn't be here if I had a problem," Nick said softly.

"I do wish we didn't have to do this." All eyes went to Raphaela, who was looking mildly sad. "But my dad can't send the X.S.E. after them, not when the government doesn't agree, and no one in the government's listening to Clare's dad. What choice do we have? We can do this. . .maybe we're the only ones who can."

Harry's smile was brittle. "The job needs doing," he said sardonically.

"That it does," Clare said softly, meeting Ian's eyes. She felt how troubled he was, and wished there was something she could say to him to reassure him.

Ian finally nodded, slowly. "You won't hear any argument out of me," he said heavily.

"Good," Clare said, more briskly. "Then we're all clear."

"As a bell," Harry said with a brief, unsteady laugh. "Time for some payback. . ."

"More than time," Clare murmured. "Long past time. . ."



We all agreed that this letter was best sent to you, since you're the one best able to call in the cavalry if need be. Bishop would probably just leave us there to sink or swim on our own. . .

That was supposed to be a joke, Dad, by the way. . .

OK. If I don't get in touch with you in eight hours, another file's going to forward itself to your secured account. It's the coordinates of the Unity compound we're going after, and my excuse for a battle-plan. If things get to the point where you do see it, try not to think too harshly of it. . .what we lack in numbers we've got to make up for in daring, after all. Fortune favors the foolhardy. . .

You're probably cursing a blue streak at this point. I know you're going to be angry. . .oath, I don't even WANT to think about Mom's reaction. But we had to do this. Not just me and Harry, either. . .all the others, too. Sure, it was my idea, my plan, but they didn't need much convincing.

We had to do it because no one else was going to get to it in the next decade. That's not a criticism, Dad, I know the Unity is just one of a dozen crises you're trying to deal with. Just one of a thousand problems. . .

So we're going to solve it for you. Hopefully, this'll work out just like I planned. If not. . .well, what is, is, right?


P.S.: Zara and Nick wanted me to ask you NOT to tell their father they were so eager to go along with this. You know how Uncle Logan gets. . .

P.S.S.: This is going to work, Dad, I promise. We'll all be back Sunday night, and you'll have plenty of opportunity to yell at me. Love to you and Mom, C.


to be continued in Black Knights: Roads To Hell

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